Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gaming the System

Face it. As humans we love gaming the system. It's an impulse as instinctive as scratching an itch or stretching out a stiff back.We're always looking for ways to maximize the reward with the least amount of effort. We're especially ingenious when it comes to figuring out ways to gain an advantage within the set of rules by which we are playing.

Even children will game the system instinctively. They figure out which parent to ask permission for first in order to push the boundaries of their limits.

We could even argue that our pets learn how to game the system. It didn't take long for our dog to learn just the right look to give us to increase her chances of getting a treat or being taken for a walk. It's the product of intelligence and we probably owe a great deal of technological innovation to this impulse.

At some point in our hunter-gatherer ancestry, there must have been the first time one of us fashioned a spear. We're not strong, powerful creatures with claws and fangs. Within the normal rules of prey vs. predator, we shouldn't be able to take down large prey. But with spears and teamwork, we were able to game the system to move up a link on the food chain.

The tricky part about gaming the system is that our impulse to do so is often to our benefit but sometimes it isn't, like when it comes to managing our weight.

Whether or not the Low Carb or Paleo folks like to admit it, most diets work. Whether they are Low Fat, Cabbage Soup, Vegan, Atkins or Weight Watchers, they all work, at least initially. Where most diets fail is that the dieters stop doing it. They abandon the rules that were working.

Low Carb and Paleo tend to have better adherence in the long run, which is why I like them. But the problem we often see is that some people stall out short of their weight loss goals. More often than not, the complaint at this point is that the diet "stopped working" or that their former high carb/junk food diet has left them "metabolically broken."

While there are certainly valid metabolic reasons why some people have issues breaking through a plateau or shedding the final 10 lbs, I think our first step should be to look if we're gaming the system.

Diets are a set of rules by which we eat, and ultimately they work to subvert our impulse to consume more than we need. Just because we are losing weight and like the results we see, doesn't mean that the impulse to over-consume will ever go away. Whether consciously or unconsciously, that impulse drives us to start gaming the system. Given time and experience in the diet, we learn which foods within our set of rules enable us to over-consume and find ways to allow more of them in than we should to reach our goals.

With LC and Paleo, it's easy to get comfortable with the new set of rules, especially since they work so well with so little effort. I think we should always be aware of our impulses. And when we stop making progress, we need to evaluate the rules and be willing to adapt them to keep ourselves from gaming the system.


  1. After 3 years of low-carbing, with stable bodyweight of 82 kg I decided to start weight training and kind of traded the "game" criteria - now it was "gym progress" instead of "bodyweight".

    Prior to lifting, it was easy to decide "ok, it's 84 kg now, I let myself go, I will do a bit of keto to go back to 81".

    But after starting my lifting "career" (right before my 40th birthday btw) I started more to think "will I manage to do 5 reps with this weight next training?" rather than "I weigh 92 now, maybe should do something about it?"

    So it may be that we switch the game sometimes, and what would be considered failure in the old game, is a success (or at least transparent) in the new one?
    (although I wouldn't call my lifting a failure, even if it helped me gain a dosen kilos)

    1. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to play a different game from time to time. When the two games are "weight management" and "gym progress", it's difficult to make significant gains in both at the same time, especially if you've been doing either for more than a year. Sometimes you have to make a choice and neither one of them is wrong.

      Right now I'm trying to cycle between the two and I'd like to work out an overall methodology that allows me to do both over the long run. I think something like 3-4 months of focusing on strength followed by 3-4 months of cutting will be a workable strategy.

      Anyway, good luck with the strength gains and thanks for stopping by and leaving a note!